Although two former influential legislators acknowledged in comments at the Tiger Bay Club of Tampa last week that many members of the Florida Legislature still must follow along like “sheep,” there are early signs that may be changing.
Observations by former Florida congressman and state representative Jim Davis and former state representative and senator Mike Fasano will be passé to old political hands, but how things really work in Tallahassee may evoke shock and awe in ordinary folk.
“There are some problems up in Tallahassee … and it’s time some changes were being made,” commented Fasano, who is Pasco County tax collector.
Using the Medicaid expansion debate as an example, Davis declared: “The leadership in the Legislature will not let these state representatives vote their conscience. They can’t even ask permission. Forget about asking forgiveness. This is an incredibly autocratic process. Ironically, in one of the most democratic countries in the world, our legislative bodies tend to be the least democratic.”
Historically, major decisions about the state budget and what bills will pass and fail are made well in advance of the opening of the session by a few legislative leaders.
“In the Senate, it is a little different because you are a little more independent,” said Fasano, who served in the Legislature for 20 years. “But in the House, it’s a problem. It’s sheep in the House. It’s sheep. There is an understanding that, ‘You will follow me as speaker and do what I tell you to do if you want that appropriations for your hometown or a decent office space; you will do what I am doing as well.’ ”
There are some rays of hope, Fasano added: “There are new Republican freshmen members who don’t want to go in the direction we’ve seen in the past few years. They are not just going to play follow the leader because they want to get parking spots, they want to get office spots or get their bills passed. It’s good to see young representatives taking the position that ‘We’re not going to go down that road anymore.’ ”
About the need for individuality and personal commitment, Davis was adamant: “When you get somebody with a backbone, somebody running, when you find someone who will stand up and say what they believe, in this wretched political climate authenticity still matters, you want to embrace them and get them up there.”
“Why do some of the Republican House members even bother to go to Tallahassee?” Fasano asked. “I have seen firsthand less and less and less influence that a legislator has in the Florida House. It is really sad. In some cases, all they do is go up there and press the green button if that’s what leadership wants, or the red button if that’s what leadership wants. What they do is they go around and say, ‘Representative So-and-So, what do you want in the budget? OK, so sit there and keep your mouth shut, and vote the way we want you to.’ ”
Some other observations and opinions the two offered under rigorous questioning by Tiger Bay Club members:
♦ Candidates themselves are having less and less influence in their own campaigns. Fasano observed: “The Republican Party will pick them and tell them, ‘Go sit over there. We will run your campaign.’ ”
♦ Davis on that subject: “The Koch brothers rented space at the corner of Platt and South Boulevard, and David Jolly ... could have gone to the beach or the mountains for two weeks because they were running it, his campaign, like a driverless car. … Here’s the problem: Pick your favorite villain. George Soros or the Koch brothers, and they say, ‘I don’t like that person. I’m gettin’ rid of them.’ At least they’re being honest in public about it, and $10 million can do a lot of damage on a candidate.”
♦ Davis again: “Let’s talk about the money for a minute. It is dreadful. If you are a Democrat running for office right now and you start asking people for money who can be punished in Tallahassee, they get phone calls from Republican leadership saying if you give money to these people, we are going to punish you. If that is not illegal, it should be. Very difficult to prove, by the way. That is what is happening. It is intolerable. It is unforgivable. If the Democrats did it too, shame on them, too.”
Andrew Bowen, a former Tampa Tribune reporter, is founder of Clearview Communications & Public Relations Inc., based in Tampa.